18 Nov 2007

More thoughts on the Etruscan Tree of Life motif

There weren't many takers in A little rant on the Etruscan Tree of Life motif when I asked where a mystery image that was the direct antecedent of the Etruscan Tree of Life motif came from. Disappointing that I get silence but you're all probably starting to shop for Christmas presents right now.

Maybe it would hit home to people if they could relate to what meaning this has in their own personal lives with the image above of the standard Christmas tree. The above picture is specifically the more hazardous Scandinavian variant with traditional candles and good ol' neolithic fire to brighten a long winter's night. Many a Swedish home has burned down because of this daredevil tradition, which is why most people have switched to the slightly less hazardous lightbulbs.

You may think there is no connection with Etruscans, but strangely, we share a very ancient symbolism with them, the Tree of Life, or in our modern world, the "Christmas Tree". To understand the connection, it's important to ask why we place a dead tree in our home, decorate it with festive colours and then light it up for Christmas. If it weren't for this being a time-honoured tradition, anyone doing this would probably need to be locked up in the psych ward. However, the beauty of tradition is that rituals pass from generation to generation, starting off having clear meaning, but over time, future generations come to merely mimick whatever their ancestors did without really knowing the reasons behind it. So most people haven't a clue as to why they drag a dead tree into their home, decorate it, and light it up like a Las Vegas casino in the dead of winter.

The answer is the sun. We do this, unbeknownst to us for the God of the Sun, to bring him back from his slumber in the coldest and darkest period of winter (at least as it is experienced in northern climes). Some naive Christians may think it's for Jesus but one will note that there is simply no mention of Jews making Christmas trees in the Bible. Perish the thought. For those of us informed about history and ancient world cultures, this is without a doubt a pre-Christian European ritual with pre-Christian symbolisms. The tree is the Great Tree, the omphalos or center of the cosmos that connects our physical world with the spiritual, the ground with the sky above. The Norse believed in a great central tree called Yggdrasil. The Norse beliefs too are connected, in a general sense at least, to our Christmas tradition and the symbolisms found in Etruscan art.

Back to the Etruscans and that mystery artifact I gave you to ponder on with the symbolism flanked with two sphinxes on either side, I'm somewhat disappointed that no one wanted to have a guess as to its origin. No matter, it's no secret if you're willing to dig through tonnes of books to find it. The Etruscan Tree of Life motif is directly taken from the same motifs found centuries before in Phoenician art which in turn derived their symbolisms from even more ancient Egyptian motifs. This is why I remarked that one of the patterns I line-traced previously from an Etruscan mirror looks much like an Egyptian lotus. This is because there is a historical relationship between the two icons. Yet again, the lotus is an Egyptian symbolism that points to the birth of the sun god, namely Ra (said to be pronounced in Middle Egyptian as *Rīʕ).

However, I'm merely dancing around the issue whose secrets run much deeper than all of this. Hopefully, I've whetted your appetites and you will start digging for truth for yourselves. Who knows, maybe Etruscan studies will one day see a new surge in interest. All of this common sense that I mentioned above though would suggest then that the sun is more intrinsically connected to Etruscan religion than typically mentioned by academia. Yet the prevailing status quo continues to make it seem as though the Etruscan god Tinia is mostly or entirely the Indo-European sky god found in Roman Iupiter and Greek Zeus. Again, I emphasize that in order to properly understand Etruscan religion, we need to shed this lingering 19th-century Greco-Roman bias that has its roots in an antiquated belief that the Etruscan language and culture was somehow Indo-European[1]. In my view, we need to start boning up more on Near-East belief systems if we're going to get serious about shedding the largely artificial mystery of the true Etruscan cosmos.

[1] It's not hard to find unscholarly comparisons between Etruscan and Latin in various past literature, as an example of this bias. Take for example, George Hempl in Mediterranean Studies (1930), p.39 (link here) who randomly equated the Etruscan word enesci in the Cippus Perusinus with Latin inēscātī. (The word enesci in fact may not even be a valid word because the text in question is written in continuous script and doesn't show word boundaries.) Where is the peer review? And of course, neither Hempl nor any of his camp have successfully translated the Cippus Perusinus to this day. I've also elaborated on another false Etruscan-Latin comparison in my previous article.


  1. The connection you lay between the tree of life and the sun is not a very obvious one.

    Yes, these trees of life seem to connect in a way to eastern beliefs that did connect it to the sun. But there's no direct reason to assume that this is the case in Etruscan. If they'd be setting their trees ablaze as the Germanic people used to, it'd be a bit more obvious ;-).

    Of course the connection with Ra is rather interesting. But it's a shame we have to derive so much from imagery rather than actual religious texts.

  2. Phoenix: "Yes, these trees of life seem to connect in a way to eastern beliefs that did connect it to the sun. But there's no direct reason to assume that this is the case in Etruscan."

    Can't win 'em all, I suppose, but it doesn't take much effort to dismiss something without clear reason. I don't think you seriously expect me to show you burning Etruscan trees as proof that they're Phoenician symbolisms :)

    Further evidence on my side is linguistic. It concerns the correct translation of the word tin which has always been heavily influenced by the aforementioned Indo-European bias that still plagues this field, not on thorough examination of the texts where its attested forms tinś, tinścvil and tinia are found. Scholars of yore would make ad hoc comparisons between tin and Sanskrit दिन (dina) "day" (see here) and the reconstructed Indo-European sky god, *Dyeus (see here).

    But ponder for a while on why tinścvil is found on a bronze lion and what that lion signifies. Do you really think this is an Indo-European sky symbolism or does it mean something else?

    Also, look very closely at the mirror where Tinia is holding the Tree of Life as he sits on his celestial throne in the pictures I show above. There are two tiny sphinxes at his feet, just as they flank the Tree of Life on the Phoenician style plate. Now it all becomes a little more obvious that many of the symbolisms are ultimately Egyptian in origin (via the Phoenicians, that is). Where else does a sphinx come from but Egypt?

    So I can understand that it's not obvious to the average person at first until one starts looking into Near-Eastern icons and then it really starts to click. I'm certain that Etruscans owe a lot of their symbols to Phoenicians who had made these same symbols since the 10th century BCE.

    Now, instead of dismissing things, the question is whether other people can do their homework and prove that my views are barking up the wrong tree? :)